Fort Mackinac soldiers clearing a path in front of Fort Mackinac in the 1880s.

Winter for the Soldiers at Fort Mackinac

 Wintering on Mackinac Island has always been a desolate and isolated affair. For much of its history, many well-off merchants, fur traders, and other entrepreneurs would leave the island during the winter months. The soldiers stationed at Fort Mackinac though did not have this luxury and found ways to sustain themselves during those harsh months. Soldiers kept busy through various trainings and responsibilities but were often left with the harsh reality of winter in Northern Michigan. Looking at the men of the 23rd United States Infantry, companies E and K, we can see how the soldiers and the army tried to adapt to their Mackinac Island home as winter resources slowly improved.

Fort Mackinac soldiers clearing a path in front of Fort Mackinac in the 1880s.

Soldiers at Fort Mackinac clearing path in Post Garden, 1880s.

 The daily routine of Fort Mackinac changed as the days got colder. In November of 1887, Captain Greenleaf Goodale issued General Order 97, moving the first assembly of the day from 6:00 am to 6:30 am. In this same General Order, less time was allocated towards drill, and more time for fatigue duty for clearing paths, chopping firewood, and general maintenance. The high snow fall on the island could make company and battalion level drill almost impossible, and subsequent orders show a greater focus on smaller scale drills, like signal drill, school instruction, and litter-bearing for the post hospital. The garrison still conducted bi-monthly musters but these were often moved indoors in order to compensate for winter weather. In order to make up for this lack of consistent and high-quality drill, Captain Goodale directed the garrison to conduct regular battalion and company drill as soon as the weather turned warm again. He also assigned recruits to drills created especially for them to make up for lost time in winter.

Plans for a shooting range, gallery and gymnasium from 1889.

Plans for the Shooting Gallery, Drill Room and Gymnasium, which would never be constructed, 1889.

 Throughout the 1880s, the United States Army put a large focus on marksmanship skills. This program required soldiers to visit a rifle range at least twice a week over the four-month training season. Outside of the season soldiers were expected to take indoor practice, called Gallery Practice. Soldiers used 7-10 grains of black powder with modified rounded bullets (much different than the 70 grains of black powder and conical shaped bullets soldiers typically used) and shot at small, metal plates, over 30 to 50 feet. The main purpose of this practice was to improve the soldier’s trigger discipline and aiming skills. Fort Mackinac received a grant from the Army in 1887 to buy targets and lease the island’s ice rink, though it seems the soldiers never used the ice rink and stuck to practicing in the Post Barracks. Gallery Practice seems to have been one of the more effective trainings the soldiers conducted during the wintertime, as is reflected in the high number of Marksman and Sharpshooter designations earned at Fort Mackinac.

 Not only were prescribed drills and trainings inhibited by winter weather, but also the kinds of free time activities the men could enjoy. This became a concern amongst the command staff at Fort Mackinac, as the soldiers not only spent much of their time drinking but also getting out of shape. The snow made it impossible for sports like baseball to be played. The healthiest activities for soldiers to participate in were, as Assistant Surgeon C. E. Woodruff wrote, “those sports requiring expensive apparatus, as snows-shoes and toboggans.” Both Woodruff and Captain William C. Manning recommended building a gymnasium and drill hall on the Fort grounds, but these plans were ultimately denied.

The John Jacob Astor Hotel on Market Street, 1885.

The John Jacob Astor Hotel on Market Street, ca. 1885

 In their loneliness, soldiers drinking downtown risked embarrassing accidents. According to the Cheboygan Democrat, soldiers started their own “social club” in the Astor Hotel in December of 1887. Soldiers could often get a pass to go downtown to one of the saloons, leaving the army vulnerable to embarrassing drunken antics by the men. Luckily, the Army had already been looking to reduce this risk by creating “Post Canteens.” There soldiers could drink and socialize within the walls of their station under the watchful eye of their offices, served by a bartender who had to follow the Army’s regulations. In the winter of 1889, soldiers of Fort Mackinac converted the old wood quarters into a post canteen. This post canteen reduced the public incidents of the soldiers, but it did nothing to relieve the heart of the problem.

 The isolated nature of the island still plagued the men. Soldier’s still lacked activities that kept them active throughout the winter, which not only hurt their personal health but also their skills as soldiers. Unfortunately, due to the nature of Fort Mackinac’s military importance, they did not see the improvements some other stations would during this time. The soldiers of Fort Mackinac in the 1880s  had to do as many of their predecessors had, stay as warm as possible, and wait for the warm and beautiful return of summer on the Straits of Mackinac.

A Fort Mackinac cannon in winter.

Mackinac Island’s Field of Dreams

“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again.  –Terrence Mann – “Field of Dreams”

  The large, grassy field behind Fort Mackinac has served many purposes since the end of the Civil War. It has been a drill field for soldiers, a playground for scouts, and a great place to canter a horse. But the one constant on that field for nearly a century and a half has been baseball. Fort Mackinac soldiers established the first ball field on this site in the 1870s and continued to develop and improve the field until the fort closed in 1895. Local residents and summer workers played baseball at the “fort ball grounds” in the early 20th century. Since 1934, when Civilian Conservation Corps workers built the nearby scout barracks, boy and girl scout troops from across Michigan have played ball on the same field during the summer months.

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Memorial Day at Fort Mackinac

  It’s a crisp morning in late May. Members of the 23rd Regiment at Fort Mackinac assemble on the parade ground in their dress uniforms and begin the slow, somber march out of the North Sally Port at Fort Mackinac and head toward the Post Cemetery. They’re joined by civilians for the walk to the ceremony.

  Upon arrival at the Post Cemetery, short remarks are made, the soldiers fire a salute, and “Taps” is played. If you didn’t know any better, you might have thought you’ve stepped back in time to the 1880s, but this exact scenario will play out at Fort Mackinac and the Fort Mackinac Post Cemetery this Memorial Day as a way to pay tribute to the fallen soldiers who served at Fort Mackinac. 

  It is a tradition Mackinac State Historic Parks has done for more than 20 years – recreating the Decoration Day, or Memorial Day, ceremony that soldiers had historically done at Fort Mackinac. In 1883, Captain Edwin Sellers suspended duty at Fort Mackinac and held the first Decoration Day ceremony.

Captain Edwin Sellers

  Some additional background on Sellers: he was commissioned second lieutenant, 10th infantry, in October 1861 during the Civil War. He was engaged in multiple battles, including Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg, and received three brevet promotions for “gallant and meritorious service” during the war. He took command of Fort Mackinac in 1879, and lived with his wife, Olive, and four sons in the commanding officer’s house west of the fort.

  While he instituted Decoration Day at Fort Mackinac in 1883, it was, unfortunately, the only one he lived to see. One year later he was buried at the Post Cemetery after a brief and sudden bout of pneumonia.

  On this Memorial Day, costumed interpreters will lead attendees from Fort Mackinac to the Post Cemetery and perform a short ceremony and salute, just as the soldiers did in 1883. Mackinac State Historic Parks Director Steve Brisson will speak at the ceremony while interpreters lay a wreath on Sellers’ grave. Afterwards, soldiers will fire a rifle salute followed by “Taps” played by a bugler. Afterwards, the procession will march back to Fort Mackinac.

  The program begins at 8:30 a.m. and will conclude by 9:00 a.m. It’s a free event. Events such as this are sponsored, in part, by Mackinac Associates, friends preserving and sharing Mackinac’s history. More information on the event can be found here.

Battlefield Archaeology at Wawashkamo Golf Club

Sideplate fragments and ramrod pipes from Wawashkamo battlefield survey. Credit: CHMA

One of the most unusual archaeological projects to take place on Mackinac Island was a metal detector survey of the portion of the 1814 battlefield located on Wawashkamo Golf Club. The project was carried out in May 2002 by the Heidelberg (Ohio) College Center for Historic and Military Archaeology under the direction of Dr. Michael Pratt and funded by the Wawashkamo Restoration and Preservation Fund.

1814 Battle of Mackinac Island.

The August 4, 1814 battle was always known to have taken place on the Dousman farm on either side of what is now known as British Landing Road. This survey was designed to determine what might be left in the ground on the western side of the battlefield after 85 years of farming by the Dousman and Early families, followed by 102 years as a golf course.
Three different types of metal detection instruments were used in order to locate ferrous, brass, copper, silver, lead, nickel and gold artifacts. The fairways were systematically “swept” to locate possible concentrations of artifacts. Four areas of interest were located, which were then intensively surveyed.
Two hundred sixty-five artifacts related to the battle were located. These included United States Infantry and Artillery buttons, spent and dropped rifle, musket and buck shot, a piece of iron canister shot, trade gun parts, an 1807 U.S penny, and three nearly complete clasp knives. Additional artifacts recovered related to the Dousman and Early farms and all eras of Wawashkamo Golf Club.

U.S. Army buttons recovered during Wawashkamo battlefield survey. Credit: CHMA

The clusters were located on fairways 1, 5, and 9 and the east end of fairway 8. Spatial analysis of the battlefield artifacts indicated that the survey area included the path of Lieutenant Colonel George Croghan’s regular troops advancing and retreating along British Landing Road, and the possible location of Major Andrew Holmes’s unsuccessful flanking attack and death.
The 2002 survey demonstrated that significant archaeological resources have survived at Wawashkamo. The results did not re-write the story of the battle, rather they fleshed out the written record and provided a tangible link to the only battle ever fought on Mackinac Island.

A Peek Into The Past: The Pratt Photo Album

A Peek Into The Past: The Pratt Photo Album

Companies E and K, 23rd Infantry, at Fort Mackinac, 1886

Mackinac State Historic Parks is fortunate to have an ever-expanding collection of original objects related to the sites we preserve and interpret. These objects help us share the many stories of Mackinac with our visitors. One of the more unique pieces in the collection is an original photo album and scrapbook assembled by Edward Pratt, a U.S. Army officer who served at Fort Mackinac and several other stations around the world at the end of the 19th century. (more…)

Mackinac’s Longest Serving Soldiers: The 23rd U.S. Infantry

Mackinac’s Longest Serving Soldiers: The 23rd U.S. Infantry

If you have visited Fort Mackinac during the summer, you have probably seen historic interpreters representing men from Companies E and K of the 23rd Regiment of U.S. Infantry. The original soldiers arrived at Fort Mackinac in June 1884 and left in May 1890, making them the longest serving unit to be stationed at the post. Fort Mackinac was considered an easy post to garrison, but the 23rd also saw hard service in numerous conflicts around the world.

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